Category Archives: Amis, Kingsley

Take a Girl Like You: Kingsley Amis

“Ah, these continentals.”

It’s the swinging 60s when twenty-year-old teacher Jenny Bunn moves to London from the North of England, leaving behind her family and an ex-boyfriend who laid siege to her virginity and failed. It’s a fresh start that Jenny is after, but while the location has changed and the men have different faces, the focus is the same. Think poor little innocent Jenny Bunn (and what a great name that is) flailing in the treacherous waters of London while circled by a number of sharkish predatory males all determined to strip Jenny of her virginity. They each have their own M.O., some are more successful than others, but arguably the most practiced, and the most vigorous male in pursuit of Jenny is Patrick Standish.

take a girlJenny rooms in a home owned by Mr and Mrs. Thompson and the other young woman who lives there, the French Anna le Page, is Patrick’s most recent lover, and add to that drama the fact that while Mr Thompson is clueless, there’s definitely some amorous vibes headed towards Patrick from the waspish Mrs Thompson. Meanwhile, the high-maintenance (in Patrick’s opinion) Anna le Page seems to be launching into an experimental phase when she grabs Jenny and kisses her on the lips. Poor Jenny takes her dating tips from the outmoded Woman’s Domain which is sadly amusing if you think about it. This is the stuff of sexual farce, and while parts of the book are very funny indeed, I’ve never found the losing of virginity a subject of interest or of fun, and in the case of Jenny, a lamb thrown to the wolves, it’s occasionally painful to read of the way she fights off various assaults. The girl needs to carry a taser.

Ideas about her, she had had to learn, were liable to be got by any man she might nowadays meet. She considered she had led a fairly normal life until she was fifteen or so. She had had friends who were girls and friends who were boys, and she had known quite a few older, married people of both sexes, most of whom were nice to her in the ordinary way. And then quite suddenly, just over the weekend as it were, the whole set-up had changed. All at once there were men everywhere. Men turned up in large numbers on public transport, especially after dark–there were always more of them then; they fairly thronged the streets; they served and waited to be served in shops; the cinemas were packed out with them; they came to the front door selling brushes and encyclopedias; some of them had even penetrated into the Training College. Men had begun not only to get ideas about her in passing, but in a fair number of cases to stay on the spot and get going on putting those ideas into practice, A fair number of the fair number of cases had been rather surprising ones by reason of the age, married status, or general dignity of the man concerned. At least they had surprised Jenny to start with.

A good example of it all had been when she was coming home from school one day and the bus-conductor had tried hard to hold her hand instead of giving her change.

Here’s one of the funniest parts in the book when Jenny meets Patrick for the first time and he thinks she’s a friend of Anna le Page because, to him, Jenny ‘looks French.’

‘Well, I’m not,’ Jenny said positively, ‘I’m English.’ She said it positively because thinking she was French (or Italian, or Spanish, or–once each–Greek or Portuguese) on the evidence of the way she looked had evidently been enough to get quite a number of new acquaintances to start trying it on with her straight away. There had even been that time in Market Square at home when a man had accosted her, and on finding she was not a tart after all, had apologized by saying: ‘I’m awfully sorry, I thought you were French’ What could it be like to actually live in France?

While the male characters are a sorry, sex-mad bunch, Patrick is arguably the sleaziest of the lot. He grasps the fact that Jenny is not the sort of girl who can handle a quick, non-committal fumble under the sheets and yet he can’t help himself, plying her with alcohol, and guiding her into his flat in case she tries to “make a break for it.” While the novel includes a few female predatory characters, it’s the males who are seen in the most unpleasant light, so there are plenty of sexist discussions amongst the male characters that are guaranteed to offend (and occasionally bludgeon) a modern audience. The sexism of the male characters who acknowledge they prefer their females “docile” is not necessarily a charge I’d lay at the author’s feet. Amis seems rather fond of Jenny Bunn, and certainly she’s recognized as a wonderful character.

Getting through Take a Girl Like You was a bit of a slog due to several sluggish sections and its dated themes. A lot of the book’s humour comes from Jenny’s innocence and sweetness when it’s contrasted with those who surround her, but this humour only works when naiveté works as a protective sheaf, and while this is definitely true for a great deal of the novel, the humour doesn’t work when Jenny just doesn’t understand what’s going on around her, is plied with drinks, and on more than one occasion lands into a series of sticky situations. Of course, Take a Girl Like You was published in 1960, when attitudes towards women, the treatment of women, sexuality and sexual consent were vastly different–and that’s putting it mildly. So while the book was being read for the first time, it must have seemed to be “incendiary stuff,” to quote the Observer. Now the book seems dated and at some points offensive–particularly for its disappointing ending.  For a modern audience, it’s very difficult to imagine the dating scene of the swinging 60s, what was ok and what wasn’t, but I worked with someone years ago who was married with children when the 60s hit. He told me that when he was a young man, you dated someone and then if it worked, you married them–with his family background, premarital sex was never on the table. When the 60s hit, he said it was like someone ‘threw open the door to the candy store.’ There’s that sense in Take a Girl Like You–the doors are wide open, but Jenny, in a world where love is hopelessly tangled with sex, isn’t ready to move through those doors. She’s hanging onto her principles of waiting for marriage before having sex.

At one point, Patrick in a rare moment of insight chews over his actions against a “humble, defenceless little thing like Jenny,” while feeling amazed that he is the same man who mooned over a girl “fifteen or sixteen years ago” hoping that she’d just look his way. It’ll be interesting to see how Amis views his characters as they approach the disillusionments of middle age in the sequel Difficulties with Girls.

 

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Girl, 20 by Kingsley Amis

“I advise you to retire to one of those places in California where nobody knows anything or notices anything.”

Girl, 20, of the title isn’t actually 20–Sylvia, the latest in a long line of extra-marital affairs indulged in by middle-aged composer and conductor Sir Roy Vandervane,  is a mere 17 and a great deal of trouble. Still no matter, what she lacks in years, she makes up for in ferocity. It would be false to say that Sylvia is Sir Roy’s latest conquest, as in this case, it seems that Sylvia is the conqueror and Sir Roy the eager booty. Anyway, the novel starts with our narrator, music critic Douglas Yandell finding himself dragged into the domestic tribulations of the Vandervanes. Douglas chronicles Sir Roy’s troubled home life with his delightfully neurotic wife, Kitty–a woman who usually tolerates Sir Roy’s clumsy affairs, but in this instance, he has simply gone too far. Kitty monitors her husband’s affairs by counting the pairs of underwear in his drawer, so when the number is depleted, she knows there’s another woman. This latest affair or “goes” as Kitty calls them, seems to be serious.

Girl 20Kitty, herself a product of an “ancient go,” which resulted in Sir Roy’s divorce from his first wife, is very familiar with her husband’s MO. He seems to regard extra-marital affairs as his right, so he doesn’t bother to cover his tracks, and there’s also the argument that his refusal to hide these affairs is a provocation. Kitty summons Douglas to the Vandervane mansion, north of Hampstead, and demands his help–although Douglas’s  first inclination is to support his own sex, “on ordinary male-trade-union grounds,” in these matters. After a few hours at the Vandervane home spent in the company of the family, particularly the obnoxious brat, Ashley, Douglas has only sympathy for Sir Roy’s desire to escape his domestic situation.

Kitty, at forty-six or seven, must feel, and could not understand why Roy, at nearly fifty-four (twenty years my senior to within a week), should have to grow sillier as he grew older, except that his growing wiser would have been unbelievable.

Sir Roy’s affairs have been indiscreet, numerous, and sometimes disastrous. Kitty says she doesn’t “mind him just having a go occasionally,” it’s his long disappearances she objects to. He’s considering taking a “tour of Brazil” no doubt with his latest paramour (whose identity remains a mystery) as part of the luggage.  Kitty is adamant that her husband mustn’t “throw himself away on some filthy little barbarian of a teenager.”

“I don’t know anything at all about her, but they’re been running at about twenty to twenty-six over the last three years or so. Tending to go down. Getting younger at something like half the rate he gets older. When he’s seventy-three they’ll be ten.”

I checked the last bit mentally and found it to be correct, given the assumptions. It seemed to me extraordinary that anyone capable of making these in the first place, and then of following through to their ‘logical’ conclusion, should (as Kitty clearly did), see the final picture as nothing but tragic or repulsive.

“And when he’s eighty-three they’ll be five,” I said experimentally.

“Yes,” she agreed, glad that I had followed her reasoning.

That quote gives a taste of the sort of humour found in Girl, 20. Aging, sexuality, and infidelity all come in for a ribbing here, and when the book is funny, it’s very funny. Poor Douglas is recruited to discover the identity of the other woman as well as determine how serious the affair is, and according to Kitty then  “we can sort of make a plan.” Led on by his curiosity, Douglas becomes embroiled in the private lives of the Vandervanes.  Douglas makes a good narrator for this tale–he’s used and abused by all sides–Sir Roy, Kitty and even other members of the Vandervane household. Although Douglas is ostensibly the wobbly moral centre of the novel, he has a peculiar ‘arrangement’ of his own–he ‘shares’ his girlfriend, Vivienne with the “other bloke,” who gets “every Tuesday and Friday.” So while Sir Roy is in a triangular relationship, being tugged back and forth between wife and mistress, our narrator, Douglas is juggled with another man, but then Douglas begins juggling another woman with Vivienne. Douglas occasionally tries to take the moral high road with Sir Roy, but it doesn’t work, and Douglas, who has a lurid attraction to Sir Roy’s grubbier exploits, doesn’t really have his heart in any firm moralizing.

Author Kingsley Amis stated that the book is about irresponsibility, and the monstrously irresponsible Sir Roy is the larger-than-life character who carries the novel. While he’s exactly the sort of person you wouldn’t want in your life–an egoist, supremely selfish, a champagne socialist with a penchant for pontificating, he’s fun to read about as he careens from one disaster to another. Everything seems to be falling apart, so we see Penny, Sir Roy’s daughter from his first marriage, experimenting with drugs even as her father experiments with a series of young women.  Sir Roy feels that he’s come of age in the 60s and can take a leap just as much as any 20 year-old. He’s convinced that “the whole generation-gap idea’s just an invention of the media and the Yanks.” He’s out to prove he’s just as hip and swinging as … well … Sylvia. According to Sir Roy, he hasn’t been breaking the law “much,” and this is how he describes his torrid relationship with Sylvia:

Ageing shag tries to stimulate jaded appetite by recreating situation of days of firse discovery of sex plus whiff of illegality, corruption of youth, dirty ole man luring child into disused plate-layer’s hut and plying her with dandelion-and-burdock to induce her to remove knickers and slake his vile lusts

This is the swinging sixties, and the novel feels like it with the disintegration of traditional values, sexual experimentation, alternative lifestyles etc, and this novel is so 60s, at times it has an anachronistic feel. Everything that was so successful in Lucky Jim, isn’t quite as successful here. Lucky Jim, Amis’s first novel, gives us the backdrop of academia and a young don who tries to flatter his boring boss–even as he self-sabotages his attempts at sycophancy.  In Girl, 20, we have a younger man who has no idea what married life is about, telling an older married man how to behave, and sometimes he even means it.  Douglas and Roy’s misadventures are very funny, but the spaces between these social explosions are not so interesting, with the result that  Girl, 20 published in 1971, is a much less even novel than Lucky Jim.  Still this is classic Amis, and that means when it’s funny, it’s very funny. And a word of caution for foreign readers who wish to read this in English. Some of the dialogue is written to reflect upper class accents, so there are occasionally sentences such as:

I’m really moce grateful to you two for doing this.”

“What a terribly nice fluht.”

“Uhbsolutelty different.”

I can see foreign readers scrambling for their English dictionaries….

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Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis

“Haven’t you noticed how we all specialize in what we hate most?”

Thanks to the reissue of Lucky Jim by New York Review books, I decided on a reread–something I do occasionally with books that I’ve especially liked. The lure of this re-read can be explained by my inordinate passion for the Campus novel, my admiration for Kingsley Amis, and my fondness for NYRB in general. It’s been years since I first came across Lucky Jim, and I remember that I found it to be one of the funniest novels I’d ever read.

The intro written by Keith Gessen made the purchase worthwhile (plus my old copy has gone astray). Gessen writes with a light comic touch combined with an understanding of Amis’s early struggles and a good grasp of the humiliations suffered by anyone trying to get their foot in the door of academia. Gessen begins with a description of Amis and Philip Larkin:

Lucky Jim is a young man’s book, in fact the book of two young men. They weren’t exactly angry young men, but they were extremely irritable. College friends with similar backgrounds, they had graduated from both Oxford and the Second World War to find themselves in an England that was in terminal decline. It was bankrupt. It was losing the overseas possessions that had once been its pride, and the people in charge were snobs and incompetents. Worst of all, no one seemed to appreciate the young men’s genius: neither the women they met nor the publishers to whom they sent their work.

That’s the first wonderful paragraph that both sets the tone for the novel and makes the point that the relationship between Amis and Larkin became the genesis for Lucky Jim–a comic novel in which the protagonist is a “hybrid” of the two men. Included are a few hilarious extracts from letters Amis wrote to Larkin with their included digs at academia, and here we see the frustration felt by the fictional Jim Dixon. Amis and Larkin obviously chafed at the constraints imposed by academic life, and the invention of the game, ” ‘horsepissing,’  in which they’d replace words from classic texts with obscenities” is evidence of their rebellion within the ranks. And it’s this sort of rebellion that explains the duality of the behaviour of the novel’s protagonist, Jim Dixon, for while he bows and scrapes to ensure his continued employment at the university, he also actively sabotages his efforts.

The novel begins with Jim Dixon trying–somewhat unsuccessfully–to pin Professor Welch to an offer of tea at his home. It’s not that Dixon really wants to go for tea since this means having to endure Welch’s mind-numbingly boring company, but it’s a politically wise engagement for a young man who wishes to impress his boss and hopes to stay teaching medieval history at the university at which he’s tentatively employed for two years. Welch, a university fossil, is a powerful individual whose nod of approval will go a long way. This is a frightening prospect as Welch prefers to waffle on about his recorder playing or madrigal singing rather than discuss Dixon’s future at the university. Dixon finds it impossible to steer Welch onto the desired subject–let alone extract two coherent sentences from the man. Although, of course, Welch isn’t quite as deranged as he pretends to be. The waffling, the indecision, the rambling, barely coherent sentences are a modus operandi frequently employed by those fossilized professors who are firmly entrenched in the halls of academia. Here’s a wonderful example of Jim trying to have a conversation with Welch on that ever-important topic of publication:

‘Yes, that Caton chap who advertised in the T.L.S. a couple of months ago. Starting up a new historical review with an international bias, or something. I thought I’d get in straight away. After all, a new journal can’t very well be bunged up as far ahead as all the ones I’ve…’

‘Ah yes, a new journal might be worth trying. There was one advertised in the Times Literary Supplement a little while ago. Paton or some such name the editor fellow was called. you might have a go at him, now that it doesn’t seem as if any of the more established reviews have got room for your … effort. let’s see now; what’s the exact title you’ve given it?’

Dixon looked out of the window at the fields wheeling past, bright green after a wet April. it wasn’t the double-exposure effect of the last minute’s talk that had dumbfounded him, for such incidents formed the staple material of Welch colloquies; it was the prospect of reciting the title of the article he’d written. It was a perfect title, in that it crystallized the article’s niggling mindlessness, its funeral parade of yawn-enforcing facts, the pseudo-light it threw on non-problems. Dixon had read, or begun to read, dozens like it, but his own seemed worse than most in its air of being convinced of its own usefulness and significance. ‘In considering this strangely neglected topic,’ it began. This what neglected topic? this strangely what topic? His thinking all this without having defiled and set fire to the typescript only made him appear to himself as more of a hypocrite and fool. ‘Let’s see,’ he echoed Welch in a pretended effort of memory: ‘oh yes; The Economic Influence of Developments in Shipbuilding Techniques, 1450-1485.’

That quote is one of my favourites from the book as it captures Jim’s frustration (which he can do little about) and the niggling feeling that he’s a fraud since he cannot, in all honesty, believe that his chosen topic is anything less than catatonically boring and hardly relevant to the world outside of the university walls. But that’s the brilliant thing about academia: find some obscure topic which is obscure for a reason, and then write about it convincingly as though you’ve uncovered something that will rock the world to its foundations.

The novel is concerned with Dixon’s antics as he tries to ensure his future teaching History, but there’s a subconscious element to Dixon which, paradoxically, actively works against him, and it’s through this strain that the novel’s humour emerges as we see Dixon actively sabotage his own bowing and scraping efforts to please Welch. Dixon manages to get himself invited to the Welch home for the weekend, but since he knows he won’t be able to stand (read ‘behave‘) the company for the entire time, he arranges for a roommate to call with an ’emergency’ that requires his presence back home. The weekend at Professor Welch’s home repeatedly illustrates Dixon’s inability to fit in. He gets drunk and trashes his room, and in order to cover up the damage he enlists the help of Christine, the girlfriend of his sworn enemy, pretentious, insufferable artist Bertrand Welch, who just happens to be the son of the man who can make or break Jim Dixon’s career.

For most of the story, Jim seems to be trapped in his own life. He’s frantic to impress Welch, a man he cannot admire; he’s not in the least attracted to neurotic fellow academic Margaret but still dallies with her as she seems within his league. He also tries to evade the earnest questions of serious student, Michie, who has the audacity of having an extremely attractive girlfriend and the annoying habit of trying to pin Jim down to concrete study descriptions. Does it escape Jim’s attention that he’s as wily and slippery with Mitchie as Welch is, in his turn, with Dixon?

Lucky Jim, published in 1954, was Kingsley Amis’s first book, and what a brilliant start to a glorious career. Apart from all the humour, it’s a significant book. Here’s Kingsley Amis, from a humble background, a scholarship boy, who made good and dragged himself up by his bootstraps into the hallowed halls of St John’s College, Oxford. Was he grateful to find the door open? Was he flattered to be invited inside that ivory tower to join the echelons of England’s Elite, or did he discover that no matter what, he was always going to be the awkward guest at the table?

Lucky Jim is a story of conformity, a story about how one man tries to fit in the confines of a career culture that part of him has no desire to belong to. We realise this, of course, before Jim does, and that’s what makes his half-hearted efforts and his self-sabotage so funny.  If he wants to impress Welch, he should learn to play the recorder and demand more madrigal singing. He should settle down and calmly and methodically court Margaret. He should flatter Bertrand and stop poaching Christine. But, of course, Jim can do none of these things, and this is where the novel’s wonderful humour can be found. Jim knows what he should do, but there’s part of him that rebels against conformity and longs to break free of the constraints imposed by an academic life. I, for one, identified with Jim, and so cheered him on through all of his delightful scrapes, hilariously bad behaviour, and unfulfilled revenge fantasies.

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